The first batch of genetically modified salmon raised in a U.S. facility has been sold from AquaBounty's facility in Albany, Ind. The GMO salmon were modified with DNA from both a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout to grow nearly twice as fast as non-GMO Atlantic salmon while consuming less feed.
Will GMO salmon be labeled?
The Non-GMO Project supports clear and transparent labeling of products made with or containing GMOs. AquaAdvantage salmon is listed as a “bioengineered food” under federal BE food labeling law, the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS). Because of this, AquAdvantage salmon sold by retailers must include a mandatory “Bioengineered Food” disclosure starting January 1, 2022. However, the GMO labeling scheme is not short on loopholes:
- Mandatory disclosures can take the form of the bioengineered foods label, a QR code or a phone number the consumer can dial for more information — a range that presents three very different experiences for a busy shopper in a grocery store.
- The voluntary disclosure period of the NBFDS is still in effect until the end of this calendar year, and it's unclear whether fish sold directly to consumers during this period will be labeled. AquaBounty has previously sold genetically modified salmon to unwitting consumers in Canada, where unlabeled GMO fish have been available since 2017.
Without standardized and accessible labeling — not to mention the confusing attempt to rebrand GMOs as "bioengineered foods" — shoppers continue to rely on the Butterfly to exercise their right to choose non-GMO.
Big names in food industry boycott GMO salmon
Consumers won't find AquAdvantage salmon at some of the biggest retail chains in the country, as 80 companies with more than 18,000 locations have pledged to not carry the GMO fish. The list includes grocery chains, restaurants, seafood companies and food service providers including Costco, who find the product incompatible with their sustainability policies. Hy-Vee issued a statement on their reasons for not carrying AquAdvantage: "In order to protect marine resources and ensure future seafood supplies, Hy-Vee strongly believes that genetically engineered seafood has no place in its stores."
Other companies that have publicly committed not to carry the GMO salmon include Kroger, Meijer, Target, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexo. For a detailed list of companies that are opting out of GMO salmon, visit Friends of the Earth's webpage.
FDA failed in environmental assessment of GMO salmon
A coalition of environmental groups have fought against the approval of genetically modified salmon for years, citing the risks it poses to native salmon populations. Critics of the GMO fish include The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity as well as several employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. On November 5, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the FDA violated environmental laws with its hasty approval of GMO salmon. The ruling calls out the FDA's failure to adequately assess the impact escaped GMO salmon could have on wild populations, stating, "The FDA knew that the company’s salmon operations would likely grow, with additional facilities being used for farming. Obviously, as the company’s operations grow, so too does the risk of engineered salmon escaping."
Salmon hold a place of particular importance to the Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest who lived and fished sustainably for centuries before the arrival of colonizers in the 19th century. In the words of Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians and of the Quinault Indian Nation,
"Salmon are at the center of our cultural and spiritual identity, diet, and way of life. It's unconscionable and arrogant to think man can improve upon our Creator's perfection as a justification for corporate ambition and greed."
While the FDA must now complete adequate assessments on the environmental risks of genetically engineered salmon, the ruling doesn't impact the current sales of AquAdvantage.
Find out more! Read Hidden GMOs in the Seafood Aisle
On March 8, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lifted its ban on the import of the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies. The FDA initially approved this GMO for human consumption in 2015, but Congress required the FDA to halt imports of the fish until appropriate GMO labeling guidelines could be established.
The FDA announced that this congressional mandate has been fulfilled through the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS), which requires the labeling of some GMOs at the federal level. AquAdvantage salmon is explicitly included in the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods. Now that GMO salmon will be labeled in the US, the FDA has given the go-ahead to import, raise, and sell GMO salmon.
AquaBounty hopes to have its GMO salmon on the market as soon as 2020. Since compliance with the NBFDS does not become mandatory until 2022, it is unclear whether AquaBounty would choose to label its salmon in the interim. This means it is possible that GMO salmon could be sold in the US without a GMO disclosure for two years. The Non-GMO Project will continue to monitor this situation as it develops.
GMO Salmon have made headlines before—check out our older blog for more details on the fishiest GMOs.
AquAdvantage Salmon to be Sold in the United States
On March 8, the American FDA lifted its ban on the import of the genetically modified AquAdvantage salmon created by AquaBounty Technologies. The FDA initially approved this GMO for human consumption in 2015, but Congress required the FDA to halt imports of the fish until appropriate GMO labeling guidelines could be established. The FDA announced that this congressional mandate has been fulfilled through the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, which requires the labeling of (some) GMOs at the federal level. Now that GMO salmon will be labeled in the US, the FDA has given the go-ahead to import, raise, and sell GMO salmon.
Congress is not the only institution that found fault with the hasty approval of the world’s first genetically modified meat; environmental groups immediately took issue with the FDA’s decision as well. The Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, The Center for Biological Diversity, and multiple employees at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have all called AquaBounty’s product a threat to other salmon.
George Kimbrell at the Center for Food Safety called the FDA “dangerously out of touch with the facts on the ground,” and Dana Perls of Friends of the Earth said “It is increasingly clear that there is inadequate regulation: the FDA is trying to shoehorn this new genetically engineered animal into a completely ill-fitting regulatory process.” Their groups and several others sued the FDA over its hurried approval, which may have violated several laws including:
- Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Federal Food and Drug Amendments Act of 2007
- Administrative Procedure Act
This litigation is ongoing. George Kimbrell and other stakeholders still believe their lawsuit could keep these GMO fish out of American stores if it is successful. “We think a remedy in our case would stop sale of the fish before they’re allowed to be sold,” he says.
Meanwhile, the AquAdvantage salmon has been quietly sold unlabeled in Canada since 2017. As of September 2018, AquaBounty reported that nearly 15 metric tons of the fish had been sold, but would not say to whom. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and other stakeholders are working to address multiple issues related to the labeling and marketing of this fish in Canada.
AquAdvantage salmon is a transgenic GMO that contains DNA from three different types of fish: Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, and the eel-like ocean pout. This results in a salmon that grows nearly twice as fast as other farmed Atlantic salmon while consuming about 25 percent less feed. Researchers do not yet know if these fish will have other, off-target effects as a result of their genetic manipulation.
These living GMOs are bred to be sterile and always female in hopes of preventing them from mixing with wild populations. Unfortunately, it only takes one mishap for GMO contamination to occur. Once GMOs are released into the environment, there is no recalling them into the lab. Contamination events spanning decades and continents prove that no containment plan is foolproof. Some people are particularly concerned that AquaBounty is not being careful enough in Panama, where authorities ruled that AquaBounty had “repeatedly violated” certain environmental regulations.
The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard
The FDA announced that since the USDA already set rules for GMO labeling by establishing the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, the congressional labeling requirement has been met. Many of the most prevalent GMOs will remain unlabeled under this fatally-flawed law because it contains so many omissions and loopholes. Despite these many shortcomings, AquAdvantage salmon and most products containing AquAdvantage salmon will require a “bioengineered food” disclosure under this law. This specific salmon is explicitly included in the USDA’s List of Bioengineered Foods.
Take the quiz: Which GMOs will be labeled and which will be hidden under the NBFDS?
The company has been farming conventional salmon in its Indiana facility while waiting for the FDA to lift the import ban. In the interim, it has been raising GMO fish in Panama, then exporting them to Canada for sale.
AquaBounty will now be permitted to import eggs to the Indiana-based farming facility it has held since June 2017. The company hopes to have its GMO salmon on the market as soon as 2020. Since compliance with the NBFDS does not become mandatory until 2022, it is unclear whether AquaBounty would choose to label its salmon in the interim. This means it is possible, but not certain, that GMO salmon could be sold in the US without a GMO disclosure for two years.
Consumers Reject GMO Meat
The hasty government approval of GMO salmon demonstrates once again that the FDA puts agribusiness first and consumers second. Despite this failure to create meaningful regulations, consumers and consumer groups are fighting back. Consumers don’t want GMO salmon--polls show only 35 percent of Americans would even try it. Nearly two million people sent the FDA comments asking them not to approve GMO salmon back in 2013, but the FDA did not listen. Luckily, many grocery retailers are listening. More than 80 retailers with a total of over 16,000 locations nationwide have promised not to sell genetically modified seafood.